Whether you run a business, a charity, or an enterprise, one key skill is learning to innovate. That means trying new things you hope will work, but understanding that in practice, they might not work as predicted. Sometimes you get it wrong, pull the idea and carry on. When our governments do this, we call it a U-turn, and that hugely negative connotation effectively denies it as an option.
That isn’t a good system in which to make decisions. Our adversarial political process means any party changing its mind is immediately open for attack from the opposition.
Take the high-profile recent case of the under-occupancy charge (see my Why we need to scrap the ‘bedroom tax’ blog). While the concept of reducing housing benefit for people who have a spare room makes sense in principle, as we need to free up bigger social housing for those in cramped accommodation, in practice, the implementation has been borderline cruel.
Yet we’re now in a place where the Government knows if it did backtrack, it’d be under terrible attack. This means the threshold for how bad something must be for it to turn back is far too high. The act of retracting is in itself so damaging, it is poorly-incentivised to change, even if it believes its original choice is now wrong.
This isn’t a party political point. Governments of all colours have made bad decisions in the past, and been attacked by the opposition. You could replace the bedroom tax with many other examples.
Some reading will, of course, say: "The bedroom tax was a bad idea from the start. Now it’s been proved, they should be punished." That’s easy to say with the weight of hindsight.
Yet sometimes things work better than the opposition expected it to (eg, the minimum wage), and the opposition later supports these ideas.
It’s easy to say a policy you object to was always going to be bad. But that’s not the point.
No-one is infallible, politicians certainly included. Sometimes there are known unknowns, or even as the famous phrase goes, even unknown unknowns.
Of course we still need them to do as much work as possible to get it right first time. But if not, instead of seeing a U-turn as a sign of a weak government, mismanagement, and poor decision-making, I’d like them to have more room for them to hold their hands up and go "we tried, it didn’t work, we’re stopping it".
For me, that could equally be seen as a sign of a strong rather than weak government. Some hope!
I’d welcome your views below on U-turns (for discussing the bedroom tax, please see my last blog).